New York State annually reserves the third Tuesday of May for voters to cast their ballots on local school district budgets and board of education seats. It’s an important opportunity for the community to participate in
shaping local education policy, and we urge all eligible voters to take a few minutes and do so on May 17.
We urge readers to visit the website of their local school district — each has a good description and analysis of the budgets up for the May 17 vote along with the details of when and where the vote will take place.
In addition, we urge voters to support school budgets as proposed in each of the county’s local school districts. These aren’t spendthrift plans — in each case, district leaders navigate the rough seas of local demands and state mandates with an eye toward minimizing the school taxes property owners must pay. The programs these budgets support are essential to every student’s education — academic, athletic, artistic, vocational — each is a vital part of the comprehensive tool boxes that today’s world demands. The teachers and staff whom these budgets support are essential, too, of course — called out correctly as among the heroes of the pandemic and beyond, and deserving of our unified support.
Sales tax revenue for local governments in New York state rose by 49.2% in the second quarter (April to June 2021) compared to the same period last year, a dramatic increase from last year’s weak collections during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.
Sales tax collections during this period grew by just over $1.6 billion and even surpassed collections reported during the second quarter of 2019, before the onset of the pandemic.
“The strength of these collections, along with federal aid, will give local governments statewide the chance to improve their fiscal stability, but it will take time to recover from the strain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” DiNapoli said in a media release. “While this is good news, local leaders are advised to budget carefully. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s to always plan for unpredictable circumstances.”
The size of the increase largely reflects extremely weak collections in the April to June period of 2020. However, even compared to pre-pandemic collections for the same period in 2019, statewide collections in 2021 were up 8.7% or $396 million.
Unatego Central School’s proposed $27.6 million capital improvement plan comes at the perfect time to keep the needed school upgrades from raising taxes on district voters, according to Superintendent Dave Richards.
“We have an opportunity with our debt where we have some debt falling off, so we can replace it with new debt without any increase of the tax levy,” Richards said.
State building aid funding will pay for 87.5% of the project, Richards said.
“If we don’t do a project, then we lose that revenue, too,” Richards said.
Leftover EXCEL funds and about $1.3 million in capital reserves will pay for the remainder of the project, Richards said.
The project would be the first is about a decade for UCS, and the first since the district embarked on a long-term plan to turn three campuses into one.
However, the project will not complete the consolidation and will instead focus on needed improvements at the district’s two remaining campuses, the elementary school at 265 Main St. in the town of Unadilla, and the middle/high school at 2641 state Route 7, in the town of Otego.
Eventually, the elementary school will be closed and all students will attend school at the Otego campus, Richards said.
For years now, Otsego County’s annual auction of foreclosed-on tax-delinquent properties has eaten up a lot of oxygen at the county Board of Representatives’ monthly meetings.
It’s the Whack-A-Mole of county government, which suggests: There are unresolved issues.
So a take-charge presentation by the new county treasurer, Allen Ruffles, at the November meeting was welcome, if partial.
First, he declared, having studied the issue, giving delinquent taxpayers four years to pay back bills is counterproductive. In the fourth year, the fees and interest that accrue just make it all that more likely property owners won’t be able to catch up.
Three years is the standard among New York State counties, and Ruffles – as he can within his treasurer’s duties – has implemented it, effective 2022.
Second, he encouraged the county board, as a companion measure, to pass a law enabling property owners to “buy back” their own homes.
Himself a former banker, Ruffles said most delinquent properties aren’t mortgaged and contain more-than-sufficient equity to qualify for bank loans to cover what’s owed.
The county board should promptly pass the enabling legislation.
While Ruffles didn’t need the county reps’ blessing, Rep. Danny Lapin, D-Oneonta, made a motion of support and it was approved, although three county reps – Kathy Clark, Michele Farwell and Andrew Stammel – abstained, uncertain about some of the particulars.
Ruffles’ presentation spurred a debate – of course, the Whack-A-Mole – on a related issue: Should county employees be allowed to bid at the annual delinquent-property auction.
There was general agreement that employees in the Treasurer’s and the County Attorney’s offices, who are elbows deep in preparing the annual tax sale, should be prohibited from bidding – elected officials, too – but beyond that there were divergences.
County Rep. Ed Frazier, R-Unadilla, objected to any restrictions, even on himself and the other reps, saying anyone who thinks a property is worth more could bid against him. The board vice chair, Gary Koutnik, D-Oneonta, called a ban “100-percent optics.” Iffy. .
Farwell, the freshman Democrat from Morris, had a more textured view: “We’re the government, and government has lost the people’s trust. I think if you take an extra step to ensure the public’s trust in government, there’s a payoff there worth more than the opportunity for any employee in the county to bid.”
She summed up: “If you are an employee of McDonald’s, you cannot participate in those sweepstakes.”
Readers, ask yourself and fellow employees: In 10, 20 or 30 years on the job, has buying property at public auction ever come up in office conversation? Most of you would say, not at all; not once. It’s just beyond most people’s consideration.
The problem here is county employees swim in a sea where delinquent property-tax sales are dissolved oxygen. Everybody breathes that air. It’s conversation
in coffee breaks, where the treasurer’s and county attorney’s employees are sipping and sharing in the conversation.
There’s simply too much of an opportunity for inside knowledge to be acquired; for county employees, if you will, to prey on the rest of us.
Of course, it’s hard to listen to any discussion about tax sales without putting it in the context of the August 2014 auction, where Maria Ajello lost her Town of Richfield home to a neighbor who happened to be a county employee.
Another wrinkle: under a then-new policy, Ajello and a Town of Butternuts property owner, Bob Force, were denied the right to buy back their properties on the day of the sale.
They still feel that injustice, and anyone who hears Maria’s monthly plea for mercy feels it too. Injustice left alone festers, with unintended consequences: Fearful, the county board feels it must have a deputy sheriff on duty at all its monthly meetings.
To sum up, Treasurer Ruffles has taken a business-like step in shortening foreclosure from four years to three. Any business owner knows: If you let a bill go unpaid for even a year, the chances of getting paid are miniscule. But he and the county board, hand in hand, should continue to pursue not a best practice or two, but all THE best practices:
• One, pass the buy-back legislation, so captured value can be freed and people can stay in their homes.
• Two, ban every county employee from bidding on delinquent properties. Steady work, plus good health benefits and a secure retirement are recompense enough.
• Three, begin negotiations to make Maria Ajello and Bob Force whole – the properties they lost were worth many multiples of the taxes they owed.
Upstate’s recovery from the Great Recession is the weakeast of any U.S. region. According to a recent study. You can examine all the nooks of Upstate’s economy. Most every one is daubed with lackluster. Papered with anemic. Writ large with blah.
Upstaters grew accustomed to this long ago. Our motto should be “We’re Number One at being Number Fifty!”
Most of us know what would help revive Upstate. Lower taxes would. Fewer regulations would. Fewer mandates from an out-of-touch Albany bureaucracy would. A much slimmer state government would. Because the slimness would suck less money from Upstate taxpayers. The slimness would reduce the number of state government fingers in Upstate pies.
We tend to lead the nation in taxes and regulations. We lead the nation in making life difficult for businesses large and small. Don’t you wish we could lead the nation in something else?
There is one move that would help Upstate.
Getting rid of downstate would.
The idea excites few. Lethargy pervades. (Maybe we lead the nation in lethargy too?) This is because upstaters know downstaters in the legislature would never allow us to split. And downstaters call the shots.
In other words, the guys who know and care nothing about Upstate decide Upstate’s fate. A good example of this is that Greens in the Big Apple are major voices in blocking fracking in our Southern Tier. Can you imagine Upstaters blocking projects on Staten Island? Upstaters opposed to tree-culling in the Hamptons? C’monnn.
Downstaters really do know nuttin’ about upstate. This is more than a laugh line at a party. Folks in Glen Cove and Oyster Bay really think Jamestown is only in Virginia. Utica really is another country to denizens of Commack. Syracuse and Binghamton are Fuhgettusville to dwellers of Brooklyn.
Oh yeah? Well, vice-versa to you too, buddy! Really. I mean, tell me all you know about the latest problems in Amityville and Islip.
Truth is, we don’t know and we don’t care that we don’t know. We feel so little allegiance to each other.
We New Yorkers have scant connections. We have no state TV or radio network. No statewide newspaper. And Upstate doesn’t even get its fair share of the state’s greatest industry: corruption. We don’t get no respect.
Splitting the state in two would work. Surely it would.
First, we would have less corruption in government. Because no new state could ever compete with the sleaze that oozes up the Hudson to Albany from the City and Long Island. Downstaters are simply too practiced in corruption for us.
Second, an Upstate government would be sensitive to Upstate issues and challenges. Its legislators and bureaucrats would more likely know how to locate Canandaigua without GPS.
Third, a separate Upstate might well end up with two political parties. As now composed, New York State has one.
Two parties, competing ideas? Hey, it might work!
This column goes to some heavies in the Big Apple. At this point I could write that they are all slobs. None of them would respond. Because none of them will have read this far. As soon as they saw the word “Upstate” they fell asleep.
A prime minister of Canada once mused that living in the attic of the U.S. was like sleeping with an elephant. The big fellow kept the bed warm, but when he rolled over…
This is the predicament of Upstaters.
If we all voted the same way and organized and outright demanded…
Oh, forget about it. Yawnsville. It would never work. We have met puny and he is us. Even in the corruption business. We could all contribute to raise a mountain of money to buy off the downstate legislators and governor. Yeah, but it would flop. Those birds are too accustomed to the big bribes. They would laugh at our paltry efforts. Not that they wouldn’t take the money.
From Tom…as in Morgan. Tom Morgan, the retired Oneonta financial adviser and syndicated columnist, lives in Franklin. His new novel, “The Last Columnist,” is available on amazon.com